Lessons from Legible London

Legible London Image

The Legible London report is a comprehensive and highly readable study of pedestrian wayfinding in what is arguably one of the most complex major cities in the world. The report by AIG (now Applied) was commissioned in anticipation of the influx of visitors expected for the 2012 Olympics, and serves as a kind of master plan for pedestrian wayfinding in London. I recently had the opportunity to review the report (freely available for download from the Legible London site), and found it fascinating. If you’re a wayfinding practitioner or are just interested in livable cities, I highly recommend setting aside the time to read it.

Among the ideas I found most interesting:

The Living Map

The idea of creating a map that becomes the basis for everything in the wayfinding system is hardly revolutionary. The commitment to maintain and update that map and everything that’s based on it is a bit more so. The Wayfinding profession is at an important point in its history at the moment. Ubiquitous GPS is causing fundamental shifts in how wayfinding is delivered. The advent of personal wayfinding, enabled by route planning and turn-by-turn directions on smartphones, is creating a need to rethink some of our tried and true strategies as designers. If GPS-enabled personal wayfinding is part of an implementation strategy (increasingly, it really should be), the need for accurate mapping, maintained over time, becomes paramount. More than ever before, there will be a need for wayfinding projects to have ongoing funding to allow for maintenance of the mapping data, at a minimum to feed the GPS requirements. Too often in the past, wayfinding projects found themselves funded as a one-time effort, with little in the way of funding for responding to changes in conditions affecting users of the system. Putting GPS into the mix of wayfinding tools on any project means an implied financial commitment to maintaining the data over time.

Time, not Distance

I’ve long felt this to be true, but it was great to see some user-derived data on the subject:

Journey time is a more important factor than distance when it comes to deciding whether to walk, with 75% of respondents describing a journey in minutes, rather than metres or miles.

Spatial Orientation vs Linear Direction

The study shows a strong preference for spatial orientation tools (maps and diagrams) over linear guidance tools (directional signage). Normally I would regard this as a mistake, as research tells us that not everybody can interpret maps accurately, and some of us will not even try. A mix of the two strategies is usually best. My own personal experience bears this out. I prefer a map, can interpret them, and find them the best way to be given wayfinding information. My wife, on the other hand, can hardly bear to look at a map, and would always prefer verbal or written directions. Highly popular personal GPS wayfinding, though map-based, is really more about linear guidance for most users via turn-by-turn directions. There’s evidence to suggest that our reliance on GPS devices actually makes us less able to effectively use maps.

I think Legible London relies so heavily upon maps for a few reasons, not least among them that the urban London environment is maze-like, and there are most often numerous routes from any given location to another. The enabling of serendipitous routing by users is part of the philosophy. The cultural richness of the city, and the sheer number of possible walkable destinations from any one location is another factor working against linear guidance. It’s impossible to direct everyone to everywhere. The plan does include some linear guidance signage, but only once the user is close to the destination as a “homing beacon”. I will be interested to hear how successful this strategy has proven to be once the crowds descend on London for the Olympics.

Beyond London

Here in Canada, the City of Toronto has embarked on a study inspired by Legible London, being conducted by the design firm Dialog, in anticipation of the 2015 Pan Am games. I will be following the progress of the study with interest — Toronto is a much different city with different issues — it’s less walkable and more car-centric. If the conditions are different, then the solutions ought to be different too. Toronto will also have the benefit of London’s experience with this kind of ambitious project. I look forward to seeing what they come up with.


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